“Illegals” of the World Unite?

Against the Current, No. 141, July/August 2009

an interview with David Bacon

THIS INTERVIEW WAS conducted on April 10, 2009 by Star Murray and Charles Williams on behalf of the Against the Current editorial board. Photojournalist David Bacon spent 20 years as a labor organizer and immigrant rights activist. He hosts a show on KPFA-FM in Berkeley, CA, and his writing and photographs are online at http://dbacon.igc.org/. His book, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants was published by Beacon Press in 2008.

ATC: Why don’t we start with the title of the book?

David Bacon:  Well, I debated with the publisher a lot about it. I knew it was going to be kind of a controversial title, because I’ve been an immigrant rights activist for over 30 years and all that time we’ve been trying to get people to say “undocumented people” instead of “illegal aliens.” And the reason for it is a very good one, which is that the word “illegal” is used to demonize people and to excuse denial of rights and second-class social status.

So putting the word illegal in the title, especially saying “illegal people,” I anticipated that people would say “Well, okay, you’re doing what you have tried to get people not to do.” The reason I did so is because writing the book made me really think more concretely about where illegality comes from, and there is a part of the book that traces out the development of the social category.

It doesn’t really have much to do with the law. It has to do with the creation of a social category for people who are denied equality with those who live in the community around them, and who don’t have the same set of rights and don’t have the same social and political and legal status.

So the book traces this history all the way back to the origins of this country and the colonization of North America, and specifically to slavery. Slavery established the idea that the society that was created here was going to be divided, that people were going to be divided between those that had rights and those who had no rights.

The purpose of this was economic really. The labor of slaves was what was desired by slave holders, and the whole system was built and developed in order to allow for the maximum extraction of that labor. And then that inequality got not only written into the Constitution and into law, but applied to other people too. There were simultaneous debates in the Americas about the status of indigenous people.

What I’m trying to say is that illegality is real. It’s a real status of people. And that it has an economic function, and this system creates illegality for very specific reasons. Today, in a globalized world, we have the use of neoliberal economic reforms, including free trade treaties, that in countries like Mexico displace people and send them into motion, and then those people are forced to come to the United States looking for work and survival and, at the same time, are forced into a social category, illegality, which already existed before they get here.

Basically the book’s argument in the end is that this is obviously a very brutal system, and if we don’t like illegality we have to change the social reality. It’s not enough to just say “Well, let’s not demonize people by not calling them illegals and instead using the word undocumented.” I believe very strongly that we should use the term “undocumented people,” but we have to face the fact that undoing illegality requires a social movement and social struggle, and we have to be willing to do that.

ATC: As you discuss in your book, there have also been programs that create a legal position for immigrants, but again with the intention of establishing a system of labor exploitation. So could you talk a little bit about the Bracero program and the H-2 visa system and the purposes behind those programs?

DB: Well, the Bracero program and the H-2 visas are the use of our immigration laws as a labor supply system for employers, a very overt one. Both the Bracero program and H-2A and H-2B visas basically say people can come to the United States to work, but only to work. If you’re not working you have to leave. And in some cases the way in which people get that work and come and go in the United States is very systematized and organized.

Under the Bracero program people were actually given written contracts when they were still in Mexico, and when they crossed the border they were assembled in big barns and fumigated and then given contracts, and they could stay only as long as the contract lasted. And in order to stay any longer they had to get a new contract to work for another grower.

The H-2A and H-2B visas work a little bit differently, but the purpose is identical, which is to supply labor to agricultural and nonagricultural employers. They allow employers to recruit labor outside the United States, and then people are brought into the country in an immigration status which basically allows employers to exploit their labor at very low wages and to impose pretty awful working conditions.

The Bracero program lasted from 1942 to 1964, and the end of the program in 1964 was a victory of the Chicano civil rights movement, of people like Ernesto Galarza and Bert Corona and Cesar Chavez, who over many years of struggle finally convinced Congress to end the program.

In 1965, Congress passed another immigration bill that was in large part the product of the ideas of those people who had fought against the Bracero program. This set up the system of family preferences. The people who lived in the United States could petition for family members living in other countries and bring them here under the family reunification system.

So it’s true that everybody who moves to the United States pretty much has to work. In fact, we need to make sure in the current debate around immigration that people’s right to work is protected and that we don’t start denying people the right to work because of their immigration status, like employer sanctions. But the ideas of Corona and Galarza were that we needed to set up a system that was not controlled or manipulated by employers for the purpose of supplying labor.

That’s still basically the problem that we are debating around immigration policy today: “Who should it benefit?”

Status and Rights

ATC: Can you elaborate a little on current debates?

DB: First of all, there’s a debate about status. Should the people who don’t have any legal status get legal status and, if so, under what circumstances? What kind of status should it be?

You have proposals that range all the way from no change at all, just deport everybody — an enforcement-only kind of approach — to proposals like the big Senate bills of the last few years that said “Well, if you wait a long, long time, like 11 years or 18 years and you pay fines and you work all this time, you can get some kind of temporary status that may at some point lead to permanent residence.”

Then you have the proposals by more progressive immigrants’ rights advocates, who say that the way you resolve the status problem is simply to give people permanent residence status, the same thing that happened in 1986.

But the other debate is over this question of should our immigration system be used more and more as simply a labor supply system for large employers. So you had proposals from the American Meat Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and growers’ associations for developing vastly expanded versions of an H-2A and H-2B program, in which they would bring maybe 300- or 400- or 500,000 people a year into the United States as basically contract workers.

In fact, Bush at the end of his term proposed doing away with family reunification altogether and said it was archaic and obsolete and instead what we needed was a point system in which people would be allowed to come to the United States and get visas based on how employable they were here. Your job skills and the desire of an employer to give you a job would enable you to rack up points and get a visa, and whether or not you were a relative of somebody living in the United States would really count for nothing.

So we’re still debating that issue. Again, it’s not a question really of whether or not migrants and immigrants should have the right to work. It’s really a question of status. What are the political and social and labor rights of people going to be? To what extent are people going to be able to be part of the communities that they live in here, instead of being isolated from them and treated simply as beasts of burden?  Same questions over and over and over again.

ATC: Essentially many of the proposals are just trying to find other ways of achieving a marginalized labor supply?

DB: Yes. The big bills for the last few years are three-part bills. They all have basically the same architecture. They set up contract labor programs, guest worker programs. They have increased enforcement, especially workplace enforcement, involving things like E-Verify or no-match letters or the use of Social Security numbers as a way of ensuring that only people here as contract laborers have the right to work — basically in order to force people to migrate using only that system.

Then the third part is legalization programs. But the legalization programs are not the same that we had in 1986, where if you could prove that you had been here since 1982 you could apply for a green card and get a card relatively quickly.

In fact, when you look at what the legalization proposals actually are and how they function, it’s clear that in many cases most people would not qualify, and you would have to wait a very, very long time before you got any kind of permanent residence status. But they would also immunize employers from any legal consequences of having an undocumented labor force.

In other words, their real purpose is to sort of grandfather in the existing workforce of large employers like meatpacking plants, so that while they are making the transition to a work force of contract laborers they don’t get punished under employer sanctions for having an undocumented workforce. These are really very employer-oriented proposals.

ATC: Shifting directions a little bit, how did your own background lead you to write this book?

DB: Well, I have been writing about immigration and work and the impact of the global economy on working people for a long time, since I started working as a journalist, which was about 18 years ago. Before that, I was a union organizer.

In a way I took my experiences as a union organizer, almost all among immigrant workers in industries like agriculture or the garment industry, and when I began working as a writer and photographer, I started documenting what I already had been seeing from the perspective of a labor organizer. The book grew out of that history, both the organizing and the writing, so that’s why, for instance, the book concentrates very much on the problems of migrants as workers.

The second reason I wrote it was that I think that it is important for us to be able to see the way in which the global economy operates as a system that on the one hand produces displacement and displaced labor, and on the other hand puts that labor to work in industrial countries. For example, the fact that NAFTA displaced people in Mexico has led to the migration of maybe six million Mexicans to the United States. That is not a side product; it’s not a side effect. It’s part of the way the system functions.

The industrial countries like the United States or Britain or Germany or France or Japan need the labor. They need a surplus of labor, both in the countries to which they have sent production, the maquiladoras in Mexico for instance, but they also need the labor of migrants here. So the kinds of economic changes that are forced on developing countries have the effect of producing favorable conditions for those companies to operate — low wages in Mexico, say — but because they produce low wages, they also produce the conditions that force people to leave by making it harder and harder for people to survive.

Our immigration policy is not somehow distinct from that. It’s part of that system, because the criminalization of those people as they cross the border and come into the United States makes their labor available to employers here in the United States at a very, very low price, and it creates a great deal of vulnerability among people who have very few political and social and labor rights.

That’s a very important thing for us to understand right now, because it affects the kinds of proposals around immigration reform we support. There’s a part of the book that tells the story of the last few years. It tries to connect this systemic analysis of the global economy, displacement, migration and criminalization with the actual on-the-ground proposals that get made in Congress and what attitude unions and immigrant rights organizations have to them.

The book is making an argument here. It’s saying that if our goal is justice for working people, especially for migrants, first of all we have to look at the production of migration just as much as we look at U.S. immigration policy. If we look at the way the whole system functions, we can propose alternatives that will actually correspond to the reality that exists, and will have the effect of promoting equality and a better standard of living and less competition among workers, and social and political rights for people. That’s why, at the end of the book, we talk about what some of those alternatives are.

The Labor Movement’s Stand

ATC:  Where do you see the current labor movement in relation to the struggle for immigrant rights?

DB: In 1986, the AFL-CIO supported employer sanctions because it was part of a certain Cold War nativist set of politics that dominated especially the leadership of the labor movement at that time. The argument for employer sanctions in the ’86 bill was that if people can’t work, they’ll leave.

This was an “us and them” argument. The labor movement belongs to us, “us” being native-born people in the United States or people who have some right to be here, and “them” being migrants. There were people in the labor movement, myself among them, who argued and fought against that position at the time. And we lost.

Afterwards, we spent a long time fighting to change the position of the AFL-CIO, and actually the book tells that story too. We were trying to convince the labor movement to reject employer sanctions, to call for their repeal, as well as to call for the legalization of people who were here without papers, and the protection of family unification and other kind of progressive ideas. But the heart of it was employer sanctions.

Ultimately, in 1999, the AFL-CIO had a convention in Los Angeles and we had accumulated enough strength by that time that we were able to win the debate and force the adoption of a new position that called for the repeal of employer sanctions. And that was a big, big victory.

The reason why the labor movement changed its position was partly self-interest. We convinced unions that immigrant workers were some of the people out there who most want to organize and who need unions the most, and that in order to do that we have to remove the law that makes it a crime for people to work, because it gets used against those workers whenever they try to organize.

Also there was a human rights argument that these are violations of the fundamental rights of workers. We have a right to support our families and we need to protect and defend workers, rather than getting on the side of the government or the employers in trying to remove people from their jobs.

The other thing that helped us was that unions had been organizing immigrant workers, and some of those workers have become leaders in different unions in the labor movement. So we had a different voice at a much higher level in 1999 than we did 13 years earlier, and we won that debate.

But I think the reality was that we were not able to take that position and popularize it and make it the property of the rank and file of the labor movement in union after union after union. There were some unions in which there was strong support for that position, and some unions in which we never really convinced people. So that’s one problem that we’ve had since then. There are some unions that have become much more active in opposing what we won.

Now, for instance, there are calls, especially in the building trades on a national level, saying that we should support again the idea of what is called work authorization, which is essentially saying that if people don’t have legal status they shouldn’t be able to work, and therefore they should be fired or not be allowed to get jobs to begin with — in other words, returning to the employer sanctions position of 1986.

Then there was another set of unions that fought very hard for the change of position in 1999, and afterwards began to get sucked into an alliance with employers in support of these comprehensive immigration bills in Washington. Basically they were arguing that the only way to get legalization for undocumented people was to agree with employers that they could have guest worker programs, and agree with the enforcement lobby to accept increased enforcement of sanctions.

I think that happened partly because, although the change in position in 1999 was sort of a bottom-up movement, the way in which unions go about their legislative work in Washington isn’t necessarily under the control of rank-and-file union members. So it was very difficult to oppose those moves from down below.

So we had a split over the last three years in which there were some unions, the AFL-CIO, that continued to support the position that we had won in 1999, and argued against guest worker programs and employer sanctions. And then there were some of the unions that broke off to form the Change to Win federation that supported those comprehensive immigration reform bills.

Currently  there is a huge debate over the change that we made in 1999, but also over the relationship that we should have with Congress and the Obama administration, and what’s winnable. The question is whether our strategy should be based on what we can win in Congress this year, or whether we should have a longer range movement-building strategy that seeks a much more radical political program, but would take longer to achieve.

ATC:  You put forward an alternative vision in the book, the formula “Blacks plus immigrants plus unions equals power,” that would challenge the compromise tendencies of the labor movement.

DB: Absolutely. The compromise position — these comprehensive immigration bills — is the result of a certain political alliance: big employers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and so forth; the enforcement lobby, which has gotten stronger in the last few years, especially in Washington; and also Democratic party lobbyists, working for organizations like the National Immigration Forum in Washington. And they crafted these positions. That’s why they work the way they do – they represent that set of interests.

So that formulation of “Blacks plus immigrants plus unions equals power” is a way of saying that if we want an alternative, we also have to have a different political alliance that fights for it. The immigrant rights movement and the labor movement need to build an alliance at the bottom among people of color, among workers, among unions.

The chapter takes a look at those instances where that political coalition has been organized and developed and basically says “Take a look, this is what actually creates strength and power for workers rather than an alliance with our employers.”  As long as we have an alliance with the American Meat Institute, Walmart, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, we are never going to have immigration proposals in Congress that are going to do what we want, which is to increase the rights of workers, to help people boost their incomes, to provide real legal status for people, and to prevent employers from turning our immigration system into simply a system for supplying them with cheap labor.

The chapter talks about Sheila Jackson Lee’s first immigration bill [member of the House of Representatives from Houston], which said, on the one hand, that anybody who doesn’t have legal status should be able to apply for it and get it, like an instant amnesty, and also that the fees that are paid by people when they apply for legal status should be used to set up job creation programs in communities with high unemployment. This is a way of saying that if you pass a bill like this, both African-American communities with high levels of unemployment and undocumented workers are going to get something out of that bill and support it. In other words, an alliance.

I also talk about the alliance in Mississippi between African-American state legislators, who are the most progressive political force in Mississippi, and the immigrant rights organization that they started, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance. They are looking at the change in demographics in Mississippi and seeing an electoral coalition that combines African Americans, who make up about 33% of registered voters in Mississippi now, plus immigrants, who make up as much as 10% in the next ten years, and unions, who can bring even progressive white workers into an alliance like that.

You can actually create an electoral alliance that would be a majority in Mississippi, which means you could knock out Trent Lott and the current racist power structure that’s held power in Mississippi since Reconstruction.

Again, what kind of alternative immigration proposals do you have to make in order to make an alliance like that possible? And also, by implication, what kind of proposals are the killers for an alliance like that? For instance, guest worker programs just drive a wedge into that alliance right away, because people who are unemployed start saying “Hey, wait a minute. Why should employers be able to bring workers in while I don’t have any job?” Especially at a time of a recession.

It’s very interesting that the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance is not only looking at this electoral alliance, but they also have become, on the one hand, the leading opponents of guest worker programs in Mississippi, and there are a lot of them in Mississippi — and also a big defender of guest worker rights. And they have actually had organizing efforts among guest workers themselves in pursuit of their rights.

ATC:  Following on from that, what do you think the current economic crisis does to these kinds of movements? Do you see hopeful signs of organizing efforts that build on the marches in 2006, or on things like the recent sit-down at Republic Windows and Doors?\
DB: The economic crisis is both a danger and an opportunity. Economic crises in the United States often lead to very nativist reactions by workers here, and that’s the danger, that people who are already here look at migrants and see job competitors and say “You’re the enemy out there. We need more deportations, more enforcement” and so forth. You certainly hear that. That’s what Lou Dobbs makes a living off of.

But I think that economic crisis also can force the consideration of political alternatives that are written off under normal circumstances — things like jobs programs. If you had tried proposing federal job programs two years ago, people would have told you “Well, that’s such a violation of the rules in the free market that it will never be considered by Congress.”

Yet here we are with the Obama administration proposing these economic stimulus packages, which in some ways are indirect jobs programs. And I suspect that these stimulus packages are not going to work, so the administration is either going to have to begin developing direct job creation programs as the government did during the New Deal, or move to the right, so there is a big fight coming up for us about that.

But that also has real implications around immigration, because we can say that if everybody has the right to work, we don’t need to be afraid of each other and to view each other as competitors. And to have a real right to work we have to remove the law that says that working is a crime for some people.

In terms of hopeful things, I think that first of all there are things happening on the ground that show that workers are willing to fight for something better, even in bad economic times. Republic Windows and Doors was a really good example. In this country, occupying the workplace is still viewed as something that is a very traumatic and drastic step, and so the fact that we had workers who were willing to do that is good.

Then I think there are organizing drives in which you can see a political alliance developing between African Americans and immigrants, which I think is very important. One I’m really thinking about is Smithfield, and the organizing drive that went on there for 16 years. Workers finally won because of their ability to reach across those race lines and national lines and form a common alliance which brought the union in.

I also think that in some ways when Obama announced the other day that he was willing to put immigration reform on the table in Congress this year, that’s a good sign too. It’s like saying “Let’s face reality. This is a real social problem we have here. We have to deal with it.”

I think that what the administration is supporting right now is very negative, because they are still stuck in that comprehensive immigration reform context, and so the challenge is to see if we can’t break them out of it, build an organized movement for something better, but that’s an opening that I think we have to learn how to use.

An Upturn in Struggle

ATC: Would that be more likely if there were another wave of immigrant rights marches?

DB: That would certainly help. We have to make the demands visible. And the marches certainly did that. And it would be a really good sign this year if the May Day marches were widespread and had a lot of people in them. But I don’t measure the strength of any movement just on the basis of how many people go out into the street on one day.

I also think we’ll see how sophisticated the immigrant rights movement is in terms of being able to propose an alternative to what is coming at us from Washington. We already know now what the proposal is from Washington and surprise, surprise it’s the same as the one that’s been on the table for the last three years.

But I see a growing unanimity and a growing maturity in the immigrant rights movement and in certain sections of the labor movement about what an alternative really is. Legalization, repeal employer sanctions, end the militarization on the border. We’ll see whether or not that alternative becomes an actual bill in Congress. But I think it’s possible. I think that there is enough support for it around the country. It’s just going to take a lot of fighting to do it, that’s all.

ATC:  As a final question, one of the really powerful things about Illegal People is the personal accounts of migration and work experience and political activism. How much was that a starting point for how you wrote the book?

DB: Well, that’s what I do as a journalist; I go out there and I interview people, I try and tell their story. And I think the challenge for doing the kind of journalism I do is to listen really carefully to what people say, and to help people tell the stories of what has happened to them and what they have done about it. I think that people are not just passive victims. They also have very creative ideas about how to act in a way that fights for rights and social justice.

Then I try to connect that with these larger questions, and so the book has both of these elements in it. It kind of goes back and forth the whole time, so we’ll tell the story of Luz Dominguez, at the Woodfin Suites Hotel in Emeryville, and then talk about employer sanctions and how employer sanctions works and where it came from and who wants it.

In a way, the part of doing this that I really enjoy the most is being able to talk to people and to hear what they have to say, and trying to reflect that in the writing. It’s closest to what I used to do as an organizer, because that’s what good organizers do. You spend a lot of your time listening to people and then trying to figure out how to interact with what people are telling you in a way that helps to build organization to change people’s situations.

And I also like hearing about people’s family history, because ideas come from somewhere, right? For example, Luz’s compañera, Marcela Melquiades, talked about her father having been a union activist in Mexico City, and about where she got her ideas on social justice. Those are the kinds of things I try and listen for, and that also help to give people multiple dimensions.

It’s hard to do that as a journalist, because you are always fighting against space limitations. I really enjoyed the book because there was space to present people as the more complex human beings that they are, even within the context of having a book that’s essentially about politics.

ATC 141, July/August 2009

1 comment

  1. This is an excellent interview! Very informative and clear on social justices issues. If anyone wants to understand better the immigration struggle and issues in the USA, they should read this interview at the least and the book for a solid grounding! We are fortunate that David Bacon is such a good journalist and author.

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